Amanda Sanvers

Hostile Witness 18-08 (Summus Proelium)

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I couldn’t move. Whatever we had just been hit with, it paralyzed us. All I could do was lay there.

Okay, to take stock, this… could have been going better. I had spent so much time focusing on being afraid that talking to this Amanda girl would somehow attract Pencil’s attention, from him seeing her as a potential loose end, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ever think that she could be an actual threat. And I sure as hell had never expected anything like this. 

Amanda was Cup. The girl we had come to talk to, the one who had been a potential lead to a way of stopping Pencil, was his sister–wait. That meant the guy who was supposed to be in Alaska, Nick, he was… he was… oh. God damn it, why did I never even think about that? 

Well, obviously, because there was a video of Pencil himself with the young Amanda and Nick tied up while he manipulated their parents into killing each other. Deicide had shown it to Alloy and me, though she stopped it just before the gunshots. What–how would that even–what? 

A giggle interrupted my racing thoughts. My attention was dragged right back to Aman–Cup herself, as she straightened while still standing over me. “Isn’t this fun? You came back! And you brought friends this time.” Her gaze moved to look over toward Pack and Alloy, before pausing. “Hold up.” Moving that way a few steps, she leaned closer to my new partner for a moment before audibly sighing while straightening back up, her voice full of annoyance. “Great, it knocked that one unconscious. I thought it was supposed to just paralyze!” She paused, then gave a little giggle. “Ohhh right, yeah that makes sense. Never mind, we’re all good. I mean, I’m good. You’re all still kinda fucked.”  

Alloy was unconscious? I supposed that explained why her marbles weren’t going psycho attacking Cup right now. But damn it! I was supposed to keep her safe. I’d–this was first thing we were doing together  in the real world, and it had all been fucked up this badly. She was unconscious and paralyzed in the home of one of the leaders of the fucking Scions of Typhon, for fucks sake. I screwed up. I screwed up badly, and if we couldn’t get out of here, Alloy would… no. Don’t think about that. I couldn’t think about that. If I did, I’d spiral into a hopeless nightmare. I had to think.

After her little giggle fit, Cup shrugged. “Oh well, two out of three staying conscious ain’t bad. And we can still play.” 

“You wanna play, cunt?” the La Casa girl countered in a growl while still laying motionless. “How about Connect Four? I’ll shove every single one of those plastic discs up your–” 

“Not on the first date, silly!” Cup interrupted, tutting while giving Pack a light, almost playful kick with her foot. “Besides, I have much more fun plans in mind than a dumb board game. I’ll just have to do most of the physical stuff myself, since that paralyzing ray won’t wear off for awhile. And, you know, that new best friend of yours is still asleep. Gotta do something about that…”

Through the bluetooth in my helmet, I heard That-A-Way. “Paintball, we’re on our way in!” 

Right, right, because we hadn’t actually been completely stupid about this whole thing. We had backup. Backup that would come in and help deal with Cup before she had time to call Pencil or any of the other Scions. She was too busy gloating in front of us to even think about moving fast. And why not? As far as she knew, she had all of us trapped here. We’d even told her that no one else knew we were there when we came in. She was in no rush. She wasn’t even…

“No!” I suddenly blurted out loud as a thought jumped to mind. “Don’t… don’t come any closer.”  

Tilting her head, Cup stared down at me. “Aww,” she all-but-purred, “is the little hero boy scared now that he’s back here?” She squatted down close to me, tapping the visor of my helmet. “Don’t you worry one little bit. Auntie Cup’s gonna take excellent care of you, yes she is.” 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way’s voice came through the earbud again, “if you were trying to tell us to wait, say something that ends with the word ‘Scion.’ And you better have a damn good reason.” 

I did. At least, I hoped I did. Taking a breath, I stared up at Cup’s eager face. At least, the part I could still see with that white mask covering the lower half. God, how had I completely failed to realize that the girl we had been talking to was her? Seriously, now it was obvious while looking at her eyes. Sure, she was pretty good at pretending to have all her marbles, but I should’ve recognized her. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve been more on top of things.  

Forcing those thoughts away, I quickly spoke up. “So you’re really part of the Scions.” 

“God damn it,” Way snapped, clearly upset about the whole situation. Which, fair. “This better be a real plan. If you’re just trying to play noble sacrifice or something, I’m going to kill you. We’ll wait for a minute, but you need to make it clear what the hell you’re doing or we’re coming in. And when you do want us to come in, end a sentence with the word nuts.”   

Cup, meanwhile, chuckled a little while shaking her head. “Still catching up with that, huh?” She gave me a kick that wasn’t nearly as gentle as the one she had given Pack. “Poor boy. You know, I haven’t forgotten about that whole nasty business at the cabin. You and your…” She turned, giving Pack herself a second kick, this one as hard as mine. “… friends hurt me! Threatened me, made poor Pencil all mad too. Oh, but he’s gonna be really happy when I bring you to him. Think I’ll find a big red bow and stick it right on your head. Won’t that be great? And wait til I tell him how you came strolling right in. Ain’t that the funniest shit?” 

Okay, okay, I had to be careful with this if the plan that had jumped into my head was going to work. This was incredibly dangerous, and maybe stupid. But it was the best chance we had to actually get somewhere with the whole Scions thing. Yeah, there was still a chance of doing some real damage to them, and not just from knowing Cup’s identity. Given how many stolen Touched-Tech toys Pencil had, and the fact that Cup had already demonstrated having this place wired with stolen tech that was able to paralyze us? I had no doubt that she had a way to teleport out of this place to safety the second Raindrop and Way got here. She certainly had methods of escaping, so we couldn’t even count on catching her with help from those two. Especially not while Pack and I were paralyzed and Alloy was unconscious. No, if those two burst in, at best they’d just be able to make her flee. Then we’d be back to square one. Which, to be fair, was a hell of a lot better than being at square ‘captured by the Scions,’ but still. 

To that end, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking again. “That was some pretty good acting back there. I really felt sorry for you.” I was careful to keep my tone a mix between forced lightness and fearful. I wanted Cup to see me as terrified but trying to hide it. Shockingly, that wasn’t a hard thing to pull off, given the actual situation we were in.

“Paintball,” Pack snapped in my direction, “I really don’t ask for that much, but could you pretty please refrain from complimenting the evil fucking psychopath who wants to torture and kill us?”  

“Aww, you really liked that, huh?” Cup was ignoring Pack, her gaze focused on me. “And see, I didn’t even expect to see you today. Pulled that whole performance out of nowhere, just like that. Can you believe I lost the lead in the school play to Bethany Dane? Not that she had much of a chance to enjoy it.” Her tone with those words sent a terrible shiver down my spine. 

“Actually,” I made myself reply, “I wasn’t talking about today. I mean, really, kudos there too. No, I was talking about the video. The one of you and… what was his name, again? Your brother. I mean, his real name. Nick? Right, Nick. I was talking about the video where you and Nick were all terrified because your parents were about to be killed. Err, sorry, were about to kill each other. You two seriously looked scared. I really thought you were innocent victims. That’s the performance that really should’ve gotten you the lead over that Bethany Dane chick.” 

There was a brief pause while the girl seemed to be considering my words. I held my breath, waiting to see if she bought into it. Then, she chuckled lightly. “It should’ve, huh? That was the role of a lifetime. I mean seriously, how many people get to pretend they’re sad that their parents just had to shoot each other because they thought they were saving them?”

“You’re completely fucked up,” Pack put in from where she was still lying on the floor. “And honestly, I’m not sure if I mean you or the idiot over there trying to butter you up!”   

She sounded completely pissed, but I knew Pack fairly well by now. I was pretty sure she’d already figured out that I actually had a real reason for all this. She knew I had a plan, and was backing me up on it by being openly antagonistic. The bad cop to my good cop, so to speak. 

Casually, Cup remarked, “Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly what he’s doing.” My stomach clenched, before she went on. “He’s hoping if I talk long enough, that paralyzing ray will wear off and you can all escape. But it doesn’t really matter. See, it’ll take another… oh, hour or so? Unless I use the counter ray. But you know, I really don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.” 

Oh man, she’d figured out my cunning plan to trick her into talking long enough for the paralyzing beam to wear off so we could escape. What was I going to do now? Woe is m–oh right, that wasn’t my actual plan. But cool for her for thinking she’d caught on. 

Still, I made myself hesitate a little as though her words actually had an effect before pushing on. “But seriously, how? I mean, did your brother just kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” 

There, that ought to do it. 

“Kill the real Pencil and steal his identity?” Cup’s voice radiated annoyance. Yup, my words had done the job. “Are you that fucking stupid? Of course we didn’t–I mean… kid, he is the real Pencil. The one and only truly original. That guy was just a stupid patsy, he was dead before he ever left the house, like five minutes after the camera stopped rolling.” 

“W-wait.” Again, it wasn’t hard to inject fear into my voice. I had the subtlest impression that she got off on scaring people, so she’d react better to that than fake awe or respect. Trying to play up to her ego wouldn’t work, but pretending everything she said scared the crap out of me? Well, I wasn’t really pretending so much, but either way, that was how I could make her talk. “You mean you guys didn’t just… wa-wait, I thought you were just… just so broken after what he did that you turned bad then. Like, he made you bad?” Yeah, saying it like that sounded ridiculously childish, but again, that seemed like the best way to get the crazy bitch talking. 

“Made us bad?” Cup’s taunting laugh was enough to make my teeth grind a bit. “Oh, you sweet, sweet little boy. No, no, no. We pulled him in, hired him. He was an actor, little puppy. Just a dumb wannabe like so many others. A poser. He played his role just the way we scripted it.” 

“Oh come on,” Pack put in, clearly getting all the way into her role as the bad cop of this whole thing. “You expect us to believe a couple teenagers did all that? Who was your boss? Who’s the one who really put all of it together and recruited you? I wanna know who the real power is.” 

From the corner of my eye, I could barely make out Cup’s form as she moved to stand over Pack. Her voice was dangerous. “Is that right, lizard girl? You want to know who the real power is? I think we can accommodate that. Give me five minutes, you’ll know who has the power.” 

Okay maybe that was a little too far. Cup was clearly right on the edge. We didn’t want her to immediately call Pencil or the others, but if she started… getting involved like she clearly wanted to do with Pack right now, that would be bad too. Quickly, I blurted, “It was the powers, right?” Feeling Cup’s gaze on me, I continued. “Some people think they can make you evil. That must’ve been what happened to you guys. We can get you help, there’s some doctors who think they can reverse the psychological effect of the sphere and make you normal ag–” 

That did the trick. A little too well, actually, as there was an abrupt rush of movement before her foot collided with my stomach. Thankfully, I’d painted a bit of orange on the inside of my costume, so I barely felt it. Still, I gave her the yelp of pain she was clearly itching for. 

“Now you listen to me, you little fuck,” Cup snapped. “Nothing changed us. Nothing made Nick and me what we are. We’re in control. We did all that before we even had powers. That’s right, we didn’t get powers until right after that happened. Those little spheres showed up and gave us these gifts because they were so impressed. They knew we deserved them after what we managed to do. Just think about that for a second.” Her foot came down on my stomach, not hard but just sort of resting there with a little force. “We talked our own parents into killing each other, and we did it through a fucking proxy. We talked a moron sucker into playing the big bad role on camera so everyone would think he was responsible and feel sorry for us, got him to talk our parents into killing each other, and then killed him ourselves. Myself. I did it. Now everyone thinks Pencil is the guy who did all that. You know who’s not a suspect and will never be? His first poor, innocent victims. That’s what we pulled off. That’s why the orbs came and gave us our rewards. Because they wanted to see what else we could do. They were proud of us.” 

Oh boy, was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But I stuck to my original plan and simply replied (in a voice that was still shaky from the terror I wanted her to hear), “Th-the orbs gave you power as a reward? I–I don’t… Is that why they gave Pencil such a bigger reward than they gave you? Because all that stuff was his idea and he’s the one in charge?”  

There was a very slight pause before Cup crouched over me. Her gaze seemed to bore through the visor and straight into my eyes as she very dangerously murmured, “Excuse me?”

Right, I had to be careful about this. Hesitating slightly, I offered her a confused, “I mean, because he’s invincible. He’s like, completely invincible to everything and you… uhh, you make people freeze for a couple seconds?” Yes, I was deliberately downplaying it. I figured with any luck, I could maybe get her to tell us any weaknesses Pencil might have just to counter my claim that he was completely invincible. Measured against her own power, complete invincibility to everything seemed wildly unfair, and I figured that would twist her buttons a little. Maybe just enough to get the girl to retort that Pencil wasn’t actually totally invincible. Sure, it was a longshot, but it was the best chance we had of getting real information while we were here. 

Cup gave a low chuckle of amusement while roughly tapping my visor a few times. “You think that’s all I do? Boy, you really are as stupid as the others, aren’t you?”  

“What?” Pack put in, “you gonna try to say that making someone stop to think about whatever ridiculous nonsense question you make up is better than literal invulnerability? Face it, babe, you’re a far distant second behind the kind of power your brother has. Hell, not even that. You guys recruit some good powers. Maybe you’re like… third or fourth? Seriously, it’s not even close. With his power, it’s like he’s Superman, and you’re… just that bad guy with the stilts.” 

There was a low growl from the crazy girl before she retorted, “First of all, you’re mixing comic universes. Superman’s DC and Stiltman is Marvel. Get it right. And second…” She trailed off, tapping my visor a couple times indecisively before straightening. “I’ve got some news for you.”

Wait, was this actually about to work? Was she about to tell us something secret about Pencil’s power? The whole thing had been such a crazy reach, and yet, it sure sounded like that. 

But no. The next words out of the girl’s mouth weren’t some big secret about Pencil. Actually, it wasn’t about him at all. Instead, she picked up that remote she had been using earlier, the one that triggered the paralyzing ray. “You think my power just makes your brain freeze up? It lets me borrow your brain, stupid.” She tapped the remote pointedly against my visor. “I ask you a stupid, nonsensical question and while you’re stuck trying to figure it out, I get these ideas. Ideas like this thing.” She waved the remote in my face. “I know how to build things, anything I want. But I only get inspired when I get to borrow other people’s brains for it. I use my power, their brains lock up, and I get ideas for my inventions. Different people give ideas of different… flavors. That’s what’s so fun about this. The paralyzing ray? You gave me that idea. I used my power on you back at the hospital and it made me think about a big colorful beam that could make things stop moving. That’s what Pencil used on you at the cabin. Then I built an upgraded version here in my home sweet home that lasts longer and hits everyone I want instead of just one person. Once I mix the portable version and the more effective one together, it’s gonna be useful as hell.”  

Okay, that was unexpected. I’d set this whole thing up to find out a secret about Pencil’s power, and ended up getting a secret about Cup’s. What the fuck? Her power was–wait a second. 

“That’s how you guys have all those Touched-Tech things,” I blurted in surprise. “Everyone thinks you just steal them from others all over the place, but you build them yourself?” 

She offered a smirk my way. “Well, some of them. We steal enough that those Techie geeks whine about it, which makes everyone assume that all the toys we have come from that.” 

Before I had time to even start processing that, there was a soft groan from nearby. Alloy. “What–” she started before giving a yelp. “I can’t move! What the–why–hey!” 

“Oh, sorry, babe.” Cup teasingly called over that way. “Pencil only really cares about punishing these two. We don’t actually need an extra.” Her hand moved to push something on the remote. In that second, a gold marble flew out of nowhere, transforming into a baseball bat before slamming into the girl. She was sent colliding into the wall. But not before she managed to hit the button. It wasn’t another paralyzing ray. Instead, three different very lethal-looking gun turret things dropped into view from the ceiling. 

“You’re nuts!” I screamed, just as the guns sighted in on Alloy. They made loud humming sounds as they began to charge up to fire some sort of beam that way. 

But That-A-Way was faster. She appeared along with Raindrop right in the middle of the room. While Cup was jolting to her feet and spinning to face the new arrivals, Rain hit her with a massive wave of water powerful enough to send the evil bitch right back into the floor with a squeal of surprise. More importantly, the tidal wave washed across the ceiling, and with a grunt, the younger girl made the entire roof of the building tear itself off. Yes, the entire roof. It ripped its way upward with a scream of protesting metal and a shower of sparks and bits of debris before flying off through the air, taking the turrets with it just as they opened fire. 

By that point, two more turrets had popped out of the floor and were swiveling around to take aim. Fortunately, Way had used that time to throw herself down across the three of us. Her foot touched my waist, she was laying over Pack, and had stretched out her hand just enough for her fingers to brush Alloy’s arm. Raindrop fell backwards on top of her, and I heard Cup scream something in a blind rage. 

Then Way activated her power once more, and we were gone.

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Hostile Witness 18-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude posted for Heretical Edge over the weekend. If you read that story and have not seen the chapter, you can see it right here

A sense of relief washed over me once Amanda agreed to let us come inside. I had really expected that to be harder, after everything she’d been through. I figured she’d be pretty paranoid about anyone unexpected showing up, let alone a few Touched. Then again, maybe she’d had enough good experiences with Star-Touched helping her since that horrible night that she was okay with us. I wasn’t sure, but either way, at least she actually let us into her place.

On the other hand, she definitely wasn’t interested in anyone else getting inside. That much was made clear when Amanda immediately shut the door as soon as we were through, and took the time to set the lock and alarm once more. Which… made me feel a little funny in my stomach. I couldn’t explain it, but the moment that girl locked and keyed the alarm, I felt a little jittery. It was probably just because of the whole situation. Anything that had to do with Pencil and the Scions made me antsy, for obvious reasons. Especially considering how pissed off he would be if he found out we were trying to find out about any weaknesses or vulnerabilities he might have. 

“Nice uhh, crowded place you’ve got here,” Pack noted after a moment of looking around the room, stuffed as it was with boxes, stacks of magazines and books, scissors, glue, clocks, and more. “You ever think about renting a storage unit for some of this stuff?” She added that bit while turning back to the girl in question. “I mean, just so you have more room around here.” 

“I like it this way,” Amanda informed us in a quiet, uncertain voice. “I know where everything is.”  She squirmed a bit uncomfortably before adding, “And I don’t trust storage places. People can break into those. Here, I–at least I’ll know if someone breaks in. They don’t let you put alarms or extra security on storage units. And it’s super-easy to get through one of their dumb padlocks.” 

Pack, clearly grinning behind that mask, gave her a pair of thumbs up. “Yeah, that’s probably safer. My people and me, we break into those places all the time. You’re right, security sucks unless you go with something really high end. Even then, really. This one time, my buddy Eits, he–” 

“That’s okay,” I quickly put in, before this whole conversation could devolve into even more of an ongoing list of things I really didn’t want to hear about. “I think we all get the point. Besides, we’re not really here to talk about where, uh, Miss Sanvers decides to keep her belongings.” 

“But why are you guys here together?” Amanda slowly asked, looking back and forth between Pack and me, her attention flicking toward Alloy for a brief moment, but mainly staying on the two of us. “I mean, you’re a good guy, and you’re a bad guy. Uh, bad girl, whatever. You’re a villain.” Her tone wasn’t accusatory at all, more curious about the situation than anything else.  

Alloy was being silent, probably an attack of nerves given how new to all this she was. And Pack was probably the wrong person to defend herself. So I spoke up. “Yeah, she’s a villain. But more of a jolly thief sort of villain instead of the…” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish that sentence. Not after what I knew this girl had been through. It felt too much like I was making light of it. 

Amanda finished it instead, her tone flat. “Not the kill everyone you know and laugh about it sort, like him.” She didn’t have to be any more specific than that. We all knew who she meant.  

“Yeah,” I murmured under my breath before shaking off the deeply uncomfortable feeling that had tried to creep over me yet again. “More than one kind of villain, and her kind is nothing like his. Let’s just say we’re all interested in getting rid of that piece of shit before he hurts any more people. If we can, we’ll make sure they stick him in a deep, dark hole in the middle of Breakwater, where he can’t ever get out. He can rot there forever like the rabid worm he is.” 

For a brief second, there was a strange look on the older girl’s face. I couldn’t really describe it, nor did I understand what it meant. It was sort of an almost feral expression, and my best guess was that she was thinking about all the terrible things she wanted to happen to the guy who had hurt her family so much, who had torn them apart and destroyed their lives. Thinking about it that way, the expression made sense. Of course she wanted to rip his heart out. That was what that look had put in my head, the feeling that this girl was desperate to tear someone apart. 

Thinking about what she had been through and had to be feeling was making me really uncomfortable. So, I cleared my throat before pushing on. Uncertain as I was about this whole situation, it was important. Far too important to let a little thing like a heavy feeling in my stomach stop me. “Sorry, maybe we should start from the beginning. You already know who we are, but still. I’m Paintball. That’s Alloy and Pack. And yeah, we’re here to find out anything you know about Pencil, anything you might not have shared with the authorities already.” 

“The word is you might be holding something back,” Alloy put in, stepping over to put herself behind me and slightly to the side. “Either because you’re afraid of what he’ll do if he finds out you umm, you actually do know anything important and tell anyone about it, or…” 

“Or that you don’t want the official by-the-book hero types to know because you’re afraid they’ll screw it up,” Pack finished for her. “Which, yeah, totally fair. I mean, have you seen some of those guys? Anyway, that’s where I come in, to let you know this definitely isn’t by-the-book.” 

Amanda started to say something, before stopping herself. She seemed to consider briefly, then turned to walk through the nearby doorway. “Come on, the kitchen’s a little less crowded than this place. You can sit down, while we talk about what a suicidally stupid idea this is.”   

So, the three of us looked at each other and offered a collection of shrugs before following. I’d known from the start that this was going to be awkward, but even this was more than I’d expected. It was going… well, in some ways it was going better than I’d imagined. She wasn’t yelling at us, or refusing to talk, or breaking down because we’d brought up those tragic memories. On the surface, it was going okay. And yet, there was still something. I felt strange, uncomfortable, even… not quite afraid, really. Tense. I still felt tense, and it wasn’t going away.

Well duh, of course I felt tense. Who wouldn’t in a situation like this? We were asking a girl who had been horrifically traumatized to throw herself into the lion’s den again and paint a target on her back by telling us secrets that she didn’t even feel comfortable telling the Conservators. 

The kitchen was slightly less crowded, if only because everything was piled on the counters rather than the floor or table. There were a bunch of boxes in there too, all of them labeled things like ‘dishes’ or ‘towels.’ One big one in the corner of the room had ‘microwaves’ written on it. There was barely space on the counter to cook anything. Even the stove was covered. 

But the table was clear (completely empty, actually), and surrounded by four chairs. We all sat down, the three of us on one side of the table and Amanda on the other. 

“So,” I started once everyone was settled, “you were going to tell us how stupid we were?” 

Before she could respond to that, Alloy spoke up. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. I knew I had, but it was–you were at my school. You and… your brother?”

Amanda offered a very faint smile. “Yeah, we visit the schools sometimes to give motivational… talks or whatever.” She shrugged listlessly. “He’s more into it than me. You know, when he’s in town. I don’t really…. do much by myself.” A slight frown touched her face before the girl sighed, folding her arms protectively against her stomach. “You always think it’ll go away, you know? It’s been years. It should’ve gone away by now. It should feel better.” She swallowed hard. “But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better. You just learn to live with it.” 

There was a moment of silence before she gave us a very shaky smile. “Sorry. I’m really sorry. I’m usually better in the schools about telling kids how they can move on, seriously. I just–I wasn’t expecting to talk to anyone today. Let alone, you know, people like you. And I definitely wasn’t expecting to talk about…” She took in a long breath before letting it out. “Him.”  

Yeah, now I definitely felt bad about being here. As if I hadn’t already. Looking down at the table, I heaved a long sigh before raising my gaze to hers. She was staring at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. When our eyes met, she offered me a small, clearly humorless smile. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Her voice was emotionless. “You’ve talked to him. I can tell.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while doing my best not to think about what being around Pencil and Cup had been like. I still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes from dreaming about being taken by the two of them for their revenge. Even closing my eyes right now, I could picture that psycho staring at me from behind that cloth sack mask. It made a thick lump form in my throat while a cold chill washed over me. I had to swallow hard before pushing myself to my feet. It felt too uncomfortable to sit anymore. Like I was trapped. I felt trapped in here, which was crazy. 

“We know your history with him,” Pack spoke up, taking heat off of me for a moment so I could pull myself together. “You and your family were some of his first victims, before anyone even knew he was Touched. Hell, you guys might’ve even been the first, before he knew what he was capable of. Before he had a solid lock on how his power works, or how it doesn’t work.”

“That’s why we’re here,” I finally managed, folding my arms as I stood behind Pack’s chair. “Because we think you might have seen something that night. Something he didn’t know he should be careful about because he was so new to the whole thing. And… and we’re really sorry to bring up those memories. What happened to your family, it was…” I fought the urge to shudder at the thought, meeting her intense gaze as she seemed to stare right through me. “It was awful. And he’s hurt so many more people since then, killed so many more people.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to pop up from the table, the chair falling to the floor behind her as she stared at me with a mixture of anger and frustration on her face. “And you think that’s my fault? You think I wouldn’t’ve stopped him if I could? You think I know something I haven’t told the cops already? That this piece of shit killed my fucking pare–no, made my parents kill each other, but I’m holding back some super-secret special weakness of his just because–what, because I don’t want him to get caught? Oh, maybe you think I’m laughing at it, is that it? Do you think that I think all those people getting hurt and dying is funny?! Is that what you’re getting at? You think I’m laughing about them dying?!” Her voice had risen to the point of near-hysteria by that point, eyes wild as she practically shouted her way through the whole retort.    

“No!” That was Alloy, who quickly stood up to put herself next to me as if ready to jump in for protection. “That’s not what he’s saying, just–just hold on. No one’s saying that, Miss Sanvers.”

“She’s right,” I carefully managed, holding both hands up. Obviously, this was a very touchy subject. Not that I could blame Amanda for feeling reflexively defensive about the whole thing. If it was me and I had been through that with my brother and parents? I… yeah, I definitely would’ve been pretty upset if someone came up to me and seemed to be implying that I didn’t do everything I possibly could to bring their murderer to justice. No wonder she was angry. 

With all that running through my head, I kept my hands raised and didn’t break eye contact with Amanda. “I know us being here and bringing this stuff up again isn’t easy. I know the– I know it’s fucked up for us even to bring up this possibility at all. It’s not that we think you wouldn’t have helped the cops already if you could. It’s more that… that you might’ve been afraid to tell them something that would make Pencil come after you again. Which, trust me, everyone understands. Maybe even something that you thought of later. The people we talked to, they think you might know something that you’ve been waiting for the right time to share. That’s why we’re here. Because we’re not the cops. We’re not the Conservators or the Minority. We want him stopped, whatever it takes. Even working with Fell-Touched.” I gestured toward Pack demonstrably. “But I promise, no one thinks you don’t want him arrested, Miss Sanvers.” 

“Amanda,” she corrected, seeming to visibly deflate with a heavy sigh. Folding her arms protectively against herself, the older girl slumped against the nearby counter. “Just call me Amanda, all of you. And I know. I know that’s not what you were saying. I didn’t mean t–I just…” Her eyes closed tightly and I saw a single tear slowly leak down one side of her face. “Every time someone brings up what happened back then, I can’t think straight. I want–I hate him. I hate him so much. It scares me sometimes, how much I want him to suffer after what he did. He took my mom and dad away. He made them–he was going to-” She cut herself off with a shudder before opening her eyes to look at us, her gaze sweeping over Pack, Alloy, and me. “If we’d stopped him that night, if Nick and me actually could’ve remembered something back then that helped the cops catch him, all those other people would still be alive.” 

She looked away from us staring through the nearby window in silence for a few long seconds. Then the girl swallowed, setting her shoulders as though preparing to say something very difficult. “And we did.” She turned back to us with a nervous expression, making it very clear that she was afraid to even be saying what was about to come out. “We did see something. I mean we found something. Later, after the cops and everyone all left, we found a… a wallet just sort of laying under a chair. We… we realized it was his. It had a bunch of different IDs in it and everything, but it was a lead. It had his face. I didn’t really look at it very much, I was… I was scared to, after everything. But Nick did. He looked at that monster’s face for hours.”   

“You know what he looks like?” Pack’s voice was flat. “You and your brother know what Pencil really looks like? Why didn’t you tell anyone about that, so they could identify him? If your brother stared at it for so long, he really could’ve helped catch the guy a long time ago.”  

“Was it because you were afraid of what might happen if Pencil found out you identified him?” I asked very quietly, afraid that all of this would set the girl off again. “If he even thinks you might be able to tell the authorities what he really looks like…” A shiver ran through me as I thought about how the psycho undoubtedly would have reacted to a threat like that. 

“That’s why he hasn’t come after you,” Alloy realized with a soft gasp. “Because he thinks if you did find his wallet and all those IDs with his picture, you would’ve told the cops already. But you didn’t, so he thinks you never found it. Or maybe he thinks he dropped it somewhere else.” 

“Is that it?” I carefully asked, watching Amanda’s reaction. “You guys found his wallet and didn’t tell anyone because you were afraid of what he’d do if he found out you identified him?” I tried to keep all judgment out of my voice, because I had no idea how I would’ve acted in that situation. Part of me was angry that she and her brother hadn’t done more to stop this, but I knew firsthand how terrifying Pencil could be. Actually, they knew a lot better than I did. I didn’t have nearly as bad of an experience as Amanda and her brother had. But just from what I’d read and seen for myself, I could understand the two of them being too afraid to paint a target on their backs, no matter how much they wanted Pencil to go down. It was a horrific situation all the way through. Being afraid of making that piece of shit angry was completely reasonable. 

Amanda, however, corrected me. “We did tell, once. We told… someone who was investigating it. We told him exactly what you guys are asking. But he just–he told us it wasn’t his job to get involved with something that dangerous, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d back off. And he… he took the wallet. He kept it himself, as like… insurance or something. If you want to know what Pencil looks like, you have to find that guy.” 

“Who was he?” I asked, glancing briefly toward the others. Yeah, this wasn’t all that surprising. Pencil was dangerous, whoever took the wallet from them might’ve, in some way, thought he was saving Amanda and her brother. Or maybe he was just a dick. He could’ve sold the wallet back to Pencil himself. Hell, I knew for a fact that the authorities weren’t always trustworthy. 

Either way, tracking him down and finding out what he did with it would be–

“Parson,” Amanda promptly informed us. “His name is Robert Parson.” 

The other two reacted immediately, though quite differently. Pack looked over at me, while Alloy promptly echoed the name. “Robert Parson. So I guess we just have to find this guy, and–” 

“No.” The word escaped me before I even knew I was talking. My head was shaking suddenly. “No, that’s not right.” I had no idea exactly how I was so certain at that moment. I did remember the guy enough to know that I had liked him as a kid. Even before you added in the whole saving my life part that Paige had informed me of. I had liked him back then, yet even that didn’t fully explain why I was so dead certain that he never would’ve done what she was saying. But I was. Which could only mean one thing, which I blurted unthinkingly. “You’re lying. He didn’t do that, he didn’t take the wallet. You’re lying about that. You’re… you’re lying.” 

“Huh?” That was Alloy, blinking over at me in obvious confusion. “What do you mean? Aren’t we–” 

She was interrupted, however, by Amanda, who offered a casual little shrug. Her expression had turned to a sly, cocky smile. “Oh well,” she all-but purred, “it was worth a shot.” 

Yeah, I didn’t have a danger sense (clearly), but if I did have one, it would’ve been screaming its head off. Alloy and Pack obviously both realized something was wrong too. Unfortunately, before any of us could do anything, Amanda held up her hand. There was a remote in it, and she pushed the button. Instantly, the three of us were blinded by a bright flash that seemed to come from every corner of the room. At the same time, I felt a wave of nausea that made me fall to my knees, then onto my side. Nearby, I heard thumps from the other two. I tried to fight my way through it, but the whole room was spinning. There was a dull ringing in my ears, and it felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. 

My vision was swimming, going in and out for a moment even as I caught a glimpse of Amanda standing over me. She was staring at me with an intensely creepy, soulless smile while producing a deceptively simple-looking white cloth mask. She touched it to her face, and the thing automatically attached itself and stayed there. 

“Now,” Cup informed us. 

“I guess it’s safe to say I have a few questions of my own.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?” 

The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us. 

Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.

But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent. 

Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.” 

With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.” 

“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?” 

“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.” 

My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway. 

“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.” 

“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?” 

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.” 

“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here. 

They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business. 

But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors. 

The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made. 

Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind. 

Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.

“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”

After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”

“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!” 

“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.” 

Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.” 

Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.” 

“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.” 

I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?” 

Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way. 

Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this. 

There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them. 

“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”  

“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?” 

Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”

“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”  

Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.” 

Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.” 

“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.” 

Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?” 

“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?” 

By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.

Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.  

We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue. 

As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television. 

“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.” 

Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it. 

“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”

Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back. 

So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below. 

I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t. 

But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster. 

I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them. 

‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’ 

See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in. 

Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted. 

I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.” 

“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.” 

“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then. 

“Come on in.” 

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Interlude 11B – Robert and Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four Years Ago

With the steady sound of tires gliding across uneven pavement, a wheelchair rolled across the dark, empty parking lot toward the front of the member’s only warehouse store. Its occupant, Robert Parson, was incredibly tall when standing. At his full height, the dark-skinned man was a solidly built six feet, eight inches. Which meant that even seated as he was now, he cut quite an impressive figure, and his eye level remained higher than many even when they were standing.

The wheelchair wasn’t electric. Nor was it one of those Tech-Touched brain-operated models. No, it was an old-school, manual chair, propelled by Robert’s own heavily-muscled arms as he pushed the wheels to guide himself right up the ramp and to the front doors of the store. 

Despite being automatic doors, they were locked and didn’t open. As he sat in that wheelchair, Robert considered those stubbornly motionless doors for a moment before slowly leaning up. His hand stretched out, and he gave three firm, loud knocks against the metal part of the door. The sound rang out around him and he could hear it within the store itself through the glass.  

Instantly, the beam of a powerful flashlight appeared from inside, pointed right at his eyes. It came quickly enough that Robert had no doubt the person on the other side of it, hidden in the dark recesses just beyond the store’s entrance area, had been watching him the whole time, waiting for the man to announce himself like that. He also had no doubt that there was some kind of gun on the other side of that light as well, if he had tried to break in quietly.

For a moment, nothing else happened. There was silence, while that blinding light was shone directly into his eyes. Finally, the light dimmed slightly, and a figure appeared in front of it. The figure moved to stand in front of the door, staring at Robert. Then the seated man heard a quiet chuckle, before a hand reached out to touch a control on one side of the door. It finally slid open with a hiss, as the man within stepped aside with a grand gesture for the new arrival to enter. 

With a single push against the wheels, Robert sent the chair into the store, then made the chair turn to face the figure who had let him in. Finally, he was able to look the other man in the face.

Well, sort of. The man wore a mask, a sackcloth bag of sorts that left his eyes and mouth exposed. Beyond that, he wore a brown tweed suit that didn’t fit properly, with black gloves. In one of those gloves, the man held a heavy-duty pistol. It was already pointed at Robert. “So you’re the guy they sent in, huh? Took you fucking long enough to get here,” he complained. “What’d they do, have the cash flown in from Chicago? 

“You call yourself Pencil, right?” Robert prompted, ignoring both the complaint and the gun leveled right at his face. “That’s what people keep saying anyway. Pencil, the invincible. Or is it Pencil, the immune?”

The response from the other man was a snicker. “Tell you the truth, I prefer Pencil the humble and charming,” he drawled with obvious amusement before giving a vague wave of his free hand, the gun never wavering from its target, “but for now, we’ll go with the most important title: Pencil, the man in charge. And I’ve gotta say, when I told the Krights to send just one guy who wouldn’t make me nervous, I wasn’t expecting them to embrace the goal so much. I mean, a wheelchair? They send in a guy in a wheelchair? Now that is commitment to the cause.” 

He trailed off, lifting his chin thoughtfully. “Course, if you weren’t in that chair, big guy like you might be a bit more of a concern. But I suppose I don’t have anything to worry about, long as you’re stuck there.” Pausing, he added in a curious tone, “So which is it? You trying to trick me, or do you really need that thing? Come on, you can tell me. We can be friends and sort this out.” 

Robert spoke flatly, his words gruff as he watched the man’s reaction. “Spine injury. Paraplegic.” From everything he’d already heard, he was positive that this ‘Pencil’ wasn’t nearly as old as others thought he was. No, he wasn’t a man at all. Not in the sense of being an adult. He was a teenager. Robert was pegging him at somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, though he’d be more confident if that mask wasn’t there. Of course, a lot of things would be different without the mask, and the power that it symbolized. 

“Shit, really?” Pencil shook his head. “That sucks, man. Unless–” His free hand snapped down, a small blade somehow appearing in his grip as he stabbed it into Robert’s thigh while pushing the pistol right up against his chin expectantly. “–you’re fucking lying!” 

A brief pause followed, while he stared into Robert’s eyes, waiting for a reaction to the pain of the blade in his leg. When none came, he slowly chuckled, before straightening. The knife came free. “Well! Okay then, I guess we’re all good, huh? Glad to see we’re on the same page.” 

With that, he pivoted and started to walk. His hand moved to grab a nearby roll of gauze, which he tossed over his shoulder to the seated man. “Might wanna wrap that up, big guy.” 

The fact that this Pencil, a freak who had started playing his psychotic games through the city a few months earlier, had had gauze ready and waiting, showed that he’d always been prepared to stab whoever came through that door. Probably as a way of making a point about who was in control of the situation. Robert considered that, adding it to what he knew about this kid while pressing the gauze pad against the wound in his leg. It auto-bonded, the sides sticking to his jeans while the middle part sealed itself to the actual wound. At least that meant he wouldn’t get blood all over the chair. 

Once that was done, he gave a shove to the wheels to send himself after the waiting Pencil. “The kid,” he said flatly, “where is he?”

“See, here’s the thing,” Pencil retorted, “I’m pretty sure I demanded money in exchange for the kid. And call me crazy, but I’m just not seeing how you can keep a million dollars stashed in your pockets. What’re you doing, sitting on it? Please tell me you’re not sitting on it. Cuz this whole business venture here is just gonna seem like it’s not worth it if my money’s got your butt on it.”

In response, Robert held up one hand, then used two fingers to carefully reach into his pocket while the other man watched him intently. Slowly, he withdrew a leather bag and gave it a light toss that way. “There’s half.” 

Catching the bag, Pencil curiously opened it, pouring out a handful of diamonds with a low whistle. 

“That’s five hundred thousand worth right there,” Robert informed him. “There’s an identical bag in my other pocket. You get that after I get the boy. Then we all get out of here.” 

“Well, well, how wonderfully shiny.” Shoving the bag of diamonds in his own pocket, Pencil gave a grand gesture. “In that case, let’s not dilly dally. I’m sure the Krights want their boy back.” Clicking his heels together, he started walking deeper into the store. “And what do I call you, for being such a fine, upstanding mediator in all this?” 

“Just a man doing a favor,” Robert informed him simply, rolling after the psychotic superpowered killer. “You said no Stars, no Shields. I’m neither.” 

Giving what was obviously an amused grin over his shoulder as they moved together through the store, Pencil cracked, “Yeah, I suppose I would’ve heard about the amazing paraplegic man if you were Touched, eh?” Snickering to himself, he finally put a hand out to stop Robert. “Right here’s good.” Raising his voice, Pencil called, “Hey kid! Step out into sight, would ya?!” 

While Robert watched intently, a fourteen-year-old boy with brown hair hesitantly stepped out of one of the aisles ahead of them, maybe sixty feet away. He was gagged, and both of his wrists were handcuffed to a chain, which itself was wrapped around the thick metal pole holding up the shelves of that aisle. 

“There’s the kid, just like I promised,” Pencil announced. “Owen Kright, ready and waiting to go right back to his precious mommy and daddy. And this,” he held up a key, “goes to those cuffs. I’ll trade you for that other bag of yours, then I’ll run on out of here while you go unlock the kid. Everyone ends up happy. And, more importantly, not dead.” An obvious grin stretched across his face, visible through the hole in the mask. “What do you say, pal?” 

“What do I say…?” For a moment, Robert looked at the handcuffed, gagged boy. There was obvious terror in his eyes, even from this distance. The kid was scared shitless. It reminded Robert of another, younger child who had been frightened like that, just a year earlier. A kid who still meant an awful lot to him, even if he wasn’t her bodyguard anymore.

Finally, he looked back to the masked man and met those eyes, peering at him through the jagged holes. His voice was even as he replied, “I think you’ve been breaking the rules of this city for too long, and it’s about time that someone shows you there are consequences to that.”  

Pencil’s immediate reaction was a slightly lifted chin, his gaze regarding the other man with renewed interest. “Oooh, what city rules am I breaking? Is it the kidnapping? The ransom demand? Wait, no, shit, I’ve got it. It must be the eight store employees laying in pieces in the back room over there, isn’t it?” Adopting a chagrined tone, he lamented, “I always forget about the ‘don’t chop people up and strew their bodies over the back room’ rule.” A toothy smile appeared through the hole in the mask. “One of these days, that’s gonna get me in trouble.” 

“One of these days,” Robert agreed in a dry voice, before adding, “And you broke the rules of the Ministry. That’s a bad idea.” 

“The Ministry, the Ministry, all I keep hearing about every time I try to have a little fun is the Ministry.” Pencil’s head shook with annoyance. “What’s the point of being a bad guy if you follow all these little rules, hmm? Which one was this, no kidnapping teenagers after Labor Day? Wait, is Labor Day the one in the spring or the fall? Fuck, I always mix that one up with Memorial Day. Wait, Memorial Day is Maymorial Day. May. May, I was right the first time. No kidnapping after Labor Day?” 

“Some of these rich people,” Robert informed him, “they pay what you’d call a special tax. Makes their kids safe from the Fells in the city. Because the Fells, like you, know that the second they break the rules and go after one of those protected kids, that’s when the Ministry steps in. You broke that rule. That kid over there, the Krights pay their taxes. He’s protected. You should’ve left him alone. Now, I’ve been asked to step in.” 

Clapping his hands together once with a sound of put-on fear, Pencil replied in a terribly shaking voice. “Ohh no, Paraplegic Man is gonna punish me for not playing by some asinine rules. Whatever will I do?” Snickering to himself, he leaned over a bit while taunting, “Would it help you be more intimidating if I got a little closer to that chair you’re stuck in?” 

It was Robert’s turn to offer a very faint, humorless smile. His voice was a quiet, barely audible murmur, “Now, who said I was stuck in it?” 

The moment those words reached Pencil and he started to react, Robert’s hand lashed out as he rose from the seat. He grabbed the Fell-Touched by the collar of his suit and bodily yanked him over. Before he knew what was happening, Pencil was shoved into the wheelchair while a pair of heavy shackles were yanked from Robert’s pockets and latched over the psychopath’s wrists to trap him there. It happened so quickly and smoothly that Pencil was already seated and cuffed to the chair by the time he was actually able to react to the sudden motion. Belatedly, his foot lashed out to kick at the larger man, but Robert had already stepped backward. His movement was no more hindered from the old spinal injury (which had already been addressed by the finest medical experts and equipment that money could buy) than it was by the knife stab that he had intentionally shown no reaction to in order to carry on the ruse.

Jerking against the shackles, Pencil gave a loud laugh that sounded more annoyed than amused. “Oh, you think something like this is gonna hold me, big man?” Despite his words, the psychopath couldn’t move from that spot. The chair was suddenly much more rooted to the floor than it had been, and refused to budge. 

“Nope,” Robert replied with a slight headshake. “Probably not for long. Not with all those Tech toys you’ve been stealing. I figure one of the first things you did was grab something that could get you out of a tight spot. Something to teleport away, something to phase out of those cuffs, probably both. And other bullshit tricks, more than I could shake a really big stick at. But before you do anything drastic, tell me, you hear a click when you sat in that thing?” 

The masked boy’s head slowly tilted, while he considered the question. “If you’re saying there’s a mine in this chair, we need to have a chat about how my power works.” 

“Not a mine in the chair, no,” Robert agreed. “That wouldn’t accomplish shit. but you know how you bitched about how long it took me to get here? I could’ve made it sooner, but you see, something occurred to me before I ever came to this place. You’re not just in it for the ransom.” 

Clearly still annoyed, yet curious about where the man was going with that (and confident beyond the point of arrogance that he couldn’t be hurt thanks to his power), Pencil managed to shift a bit until he was almost lounging in the wheelchair despite being cuffed to it. “I’m not?” Another toothy smile appeared. “This sounds like a fun theory you’ve cooked up. Do tell.” He obviously wasn’t worried about actually being trapped, given his prepared defenses against similar scenarios. 

“See,” Robert informed him, “all that stuff I said a minute ago about the whole rules about not targeting rich people’s kids? You knew that already. You chose that kid over there for a reason. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t an accident. You chose that kid because you knew it would get the Ministry’s attention. Because you wanted that kid’s parents to run to the Ministry and get them involved. You like to play magician, Pencil. You like to play ‘look over here’ while your little assistant does the real trick behind the curtain.” 

“And what assistant d–” Pencil started. 

Robert interrupted with, “Seven-Three-Eight-Five Abalone Drive West. Suite Thirty-Six.” 

For the first time, Pencil did a double-take of genuine surprise, blurting, “How do you–” 

“You’ve been looking for those records for a long time, haven’t you?” Robert asked, shaking his head. “Two different kidnappings, a hostage crisis at a grocery store, and a bar brawl that escalated into mass murder, all in under two months. And during each and every one of those events, where you stayed longer than you had to, a different office that holds adoption records was broken into by a young woman who was just… so distracting. Four different offices. But they were all the wrong ones. They didn’t have the records the two of you were looking for, did they? They didn’t have the records of what happened to the baby that Collette and Shane Elbrecht gave away. Collette and Shane Elbrecht,” he added thoughtfully, “two of your first victims, from almost a year ago.” 

After a brief pause to judge the silent masked boy’s reaction, Robert continued. “But they weren’t random either, were they? You stole something out of their house. A box, one you want to get into pretty badly. But you didn’t realize it was DNA-locked until after you killed them. Can’t break into it without destroying whatever’s inside. And you can’t use a dead person to open it. You need a living relative to open that box. And you’re so desperate to get whatever’s inside, when you found out those two gave away a baby years back, you just had to get the files to find out where they ended up.” 

Obviously taken aback by how much the strange man knew, Pencil managed, “You put a lot together on your way over here, old man.” 

“Didn’t just put it together on my way over,” Robert informed him, reaching into his jacket pocket before withdrawing a manila folder with some papers, which he opened to show the masked figure a brief glimpse of. “I stopped at the office and grabbed the file before your girl could get there. Deleted the computer file too, just in case. Which makes this the only copy left.” He waved the folder idly. “I’d wager she’s still looking through all those boxes as we speak.” 

Eyes zeroing in on the file, Pencil slowly announced, “You know what, heh. Good show. But you give me that file and I’ll let you walk out of here with the kid and the gems. All I want is that file. Hell, you hand it over and we could all be friends.” 

“Friends, huh?” Robert appeared to consider that for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Nah.” With that, the man produced a lighter, holding it up to the folder. In seconds, the papers within were engulfed in flames. 

“You fucking cocksucker!” The scream of rage tore its way out of Pencil’s throat, before he blurted an obvious command word for stolen Touched-Tech, “Sideslip!” For an instant, it worked. The masked figure was abruptly standing a few feet away from the wheelchair, no longer handcuffed. But in the next instant, he was engulfed in white flames, before abruptly disappearing entirely with a scream of surprise. 

Turning on his heel while dropping the remnants of the file to the floor as they turned to ash, Robert walked to where Owen Kright was, reaching out to take the gag off the boy. 

“Wha–what just–what’d you do?!” Owen blurted, eyes wide with shock. 

“Didn’t give him diamonds, I’ll tell you that much,” Robert replied. “Serclin Stones, named after the guy who makes them. They… react volatilely to any kind of Travel powers. Even Tech-Touched-based ones. Makes them explode and screw with the Travel power that set them off. That guy could be anywhere in the state right now.” 

“But,” the boy stammered, “what was the click when he sat in the chair? You said it wasn’t a mine, but… but what was it?”

“What, that?” Robert showed the boy a small smile. “Nothing. There was no click. But he wasn’t about to admit he didn’t hear it when I implied there was one, and it made him shut up trying to figure it out long enough for me to get through what I needed to do.

“Now come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ve got a guy named Kent who’d like to have a quick word with you before you go back to your parents.” 

*******

Two hours later, fifteen-year-old Amanda Sanvers, known to the public as Cup, sat in the back of a diner, watching a couple late night news talking heads blather on about the latest Collision Point. Apparently some idiots actually worshiped those Abyssal monsters. 

She glanced over as her beloved brother made his way to the booth and slumped down in it. His voice was dark. “It was right there. We almost had it.” 

“He read the file,” Amanda assured him gently, hand moving over to squeeze Nick’s arm. “We just need to get info out of him. We’ll find out where that kid was adopted off to, and open the box. We just gotta be a little patient.” 

“What we need,” Nick informed her, “is some more help. This two person act thing isn’t cutting it. We need some more lackeys. We need partners. The Ministry, all these other gangs, even the heroes, they’ve all got gangs. We need a team. But not a boring one. We need a bunch of really fucked up people we can use for cannon fodder and entertainment, babe. But where are we gonna find people like that?” 

Lifting her chin, Amanda nodded to the television. “How about right there?” 

He looked that way, coughing once. “Typhon? Sweetness, I’m good, but I’m not ‘talk an Abyssal  into doing our bidding’ good.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to grin. “Not the Abyssal. All those dumbass fucks they’ve got lined up to worship him. Those stupid fucking Abyssal cults. They seem good for a laugh.”

For a moment, Nick didn’t respond. He watched the news going on about the people who were obsessed with the Abyssals in general, and the one called Typhon in particular. Finally, he chuckled low. “My sweet, sweet sister. 

“Sometimes, you have the most amazing ideas.”

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Interlude 5A – Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four years ago

“You’re not special, you know.“

The words were addressed to a family of four (a mother and father with a teenaged child of each sex), who were sitting bound and gagged on a couch in an innocuous-looking living room. They were a very all-American suburbanite-looking family. The father’s formerly thick, dark hair had passed the midpoint of balding and he was a bit saggy around the gut, though his bright blue eyes remained fiercely intelligent and sharp. Beside him, the man’s wife retained much of the beauty of her not-so-recent youth, with long blonde hair that only needed a bit of help retaining its color and shine thanks to quite wonderful genes. Her own eyes were dark, and were currently filled with tears. 

Their teenage children, meanwhile, each quite resembled their opposite-sex parent. The girl had long dark hair like her father’s had been some time before, with eyes whose brilliant blue matched his with the added youthful spirit. A spirit which, at the moment, seemed entirely broken by terror. And her slightly older brother was very clearly his mother’s son, with hair that might have been much shorter than hers, but was no less blond. His eyes too were as dark as hers, his rage and helplessness seeming to mask a revulsion and terror that was indescribable. 

All four were staring at a man in an ill-fitting brown tweed suit who stood nearby. He wore a sackcloth bag over his head as a mask with holes cut in it for his eyes and mouth. A wig of long, luxurious blond hair had been attached to the bag-mask, making him look quite normal from the back. 

The source of the family’s terror, beyond their imprisonment, was visible on the recliner chair beside their couch. An uncle who had been visiting, and who had thought to rebel against this intruder when he arrived, lay in that chair gutted from waist to throat, his insides spilling out as his dead horrified gaze seemed to stare accusingly at his family. 

Tears fell freely from the four as they fought not to look at the body. Both teenagers had been sick over themselves and the smell from it was competing with that of the body. They kept their attention rigidly locked on the man in front of them as he casually flipped a bloody knife between his fingers. 

“Everyone wants to think they’re special,” the man continued. “Especially victims. And you, uh, you’re pretty victimy. People like you, they want to think that something’s happening for a reason, that they were chosen for some… purpose.” 

He paused then, head cocked as though considering. “Actually it’s the survivors who really like to think that you’re special. They need you to have done something to deserve this. Or at least something to draw the attention of whatever made it happen. They need a cause-and-effect, because otherwise it could happen to anyone. It could happen to them. And, well, that’s just too terrifying a thought to consider.”

He stepped over, stopping in front of the mother. Her eyes widened with terror while her husband made repeated grunting sounds, trying to draw their attacker’s attention. 

Slowly, those eyes in the sack mask turned a bit to look toward the father. A low, raspy chuckle escaped the man as he spoke again. “Like I said, everyone thinks they’re special. They’re not. You’re not. Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here, why I chose you? It’s because I flipped through the phonebook and landed on an address. This house is where my finger stopped. Random, huh?”

He offered them a shrug, his gaze moving back to the mother. “But here’s the thing about randomness. It can go both ways. If I wanted to be truly random, couldn’t I just turn around and walk out that door right now?” He gave another raspy chuckle as their eyes moved hopefully to the front entrance. “Yeah, I could do that. I could leave. And then maybe I’ll find you again in a year, or maybe I’ll wait until the girl over there has a munchkin of her own and then take the kid.” His hand waved idly toward the fifteen-year-old girl, causing a muffled scream of outrage from her parents. 

“I could do a hell of a lot of things,” the man continued with a casual, musing tone. “But you know what sounds like a lot of fun? A game.“ 

With that, he reached out quickly, grabbing the mother by the arm before yanking her up. His knife was pointed toward the father to keep him docile while the masked man wrestled the mother up and over, making her straddle her husband. Humming, the man used the knife to cut the mother’s bonds, but kept it close to her side to prevent her from moving very much. He then took hold of one of her hands, extending it toward her husband. A cord was produced next, with a loop at either end. The man looped one end around her wrist, before looping the other end around the father’s neck. It kept her hand close to his throat. 

That done, the masked man lifted her husband‘s hand and repeated much the same to put his hand near her throat. Then he bound their opposite arms together to keep them locked that way. Husband and wife were now tied together, hands close to each other’s necks. 

Next, the man produced a pair of small revolvers. There was a collection of muffled shouting, but he spoke over it. “Now, now, let’s all hear what the rules of the game are before we start interrupting. Don’t be rude.” He made a show out of ejecting all of the shells from each revolver except for one in each. Then the man carefully placed one of the revolvers in each of the parents’ hands that were tied close to their partner’s neck before using a roll of duct tape to secure them in place, making sure they couldn’t move the barrels anywhere else. 

“Okay then,” the man announced, “we’re off to the races. The question we’re asking here today is which kid do you love the most? See, at least one of these kids has a fighting chance of walking out of here, if not both. If Daddy shoots Mommy, then his beautiful baby girl gets to leave completely untouched. If Mommy shoots Daddy, then their bright-eyed, bushy-tailed boy gets to survive. Maybe he’ll write a book about it. And, well, I suppose if both Mommy and Daddy shoot each other, the kids win the grand prize. Which is sort of a lifetime of nightmares and thousands in therapy bills. But hey, they’ll be alive. Which is more than I could say for the contestants.”

Turning, the man pointed to a camera that had been set up on a tripod in the corner and had been recording throughout his explanation. “And if you can, try to spray some of the blood toward our friends in the future audience. That’ll really give it a nice, visceral feel for the inevitable TV movie and true crime episode about this little hiccup in your lives. I mean, I’d say regular movie because, let’s face it, I’m pretty damn good at this. But I just don’t think you’re that important.”

He let them consider that for a brief moment before adding, “And just to make it interesting, let’s say that if neither of you have shot each other by the time that cuckoo clock over there goes off, I’ll just kill one of the kids myself. We’ll make it an Eenie Meenie situation.”

A handful of seconds passed as the man looked toward the clock before turning back to them with a small smile. “Would this be more or less nerve-racking if you could actually see that clock and had any idea how close it was to going off? I’m genuinely curious. Always looking to make these little visits better, you know? I thought of having comment cards, but I just don’t feel like you’d be honest. Oh, whoops, you’re probably trying to decide how much you love your kids right now, right? Well, I’ll let you get back to it, for the next… well…” He glanced toward the clock before offering them a shrug. “However long you have.”

Mother and father fought uselessly against their bonds for a few seconds, pleading through their gags for mercy while their eyes snapped back and forth between each other and the clock, whose face they couldn’t see. In the background, the masked man made a soft ticking sounds with clear amusement, occasionally glancing toward the camera while making pantomime gestures as if to ask, ‘Can you believe it’s taking them this long?’

The mother and father looked toward their bound and gagged children, a keening sound of desperation escaping the mother before she snapped her eyes back to her husband. A brief moment of silent communication passed between them and both slumped a little as they came to a mutual decision. 

“Ohhh, ladies and gentlemen and tied up offspring currently sitting on the couch,” the man started, “ I believe we have a—“

Two terrifyingly loud bangs filled the room as mother and father shot one another in the head, spraying blood and brain matter in every direction. The echoes of the shots were followed by barely muffled screams from both teenagers. Wails and sobs flooded from the pair to form a distinct soundtrack of horror against the grisly sight. Their violent, wretched grief, painfully visible on the camera for a moment, was blocked then as the masked man knelt in front of it. 

“Well, I guess that’s it for today. But don’t worry, we’ll see each other again. Maybe some of you sooner than you think.” With a wave of one hand, he used the other to reach out and turn off the camera. 

“Holy shit!” The new voice filled the room as soon as the camera was off, as the teenage boy lunged to his feet, his ‘bonds’ falling as he ripped the gag from his mouth. “Holy shit! That was amazing! That was so fucking cool! Wasn’t it, Manda?” 

He turned a bit, seeing his sister on the couch, still staring at their parents’ bodies. “Amanda?”

With a loud, gleeful squeal, the fifteen-year-old girl spat the gag in her mouth out and sprang just as energetically to her feet, fake bonds falling to the floor while she threw her arms around her sixteen-year-old brother. “Nick, Nick, that was so great! Did you see the look on their faces before they did it?! Oh, that was incredible. That was the most beautiful thing ever! That was amazing!” 

She continued to hug her brother tightly for a few seconds before turning to kick her mother’s lifeless leg. “Who doesn’t get a new phone now, bitch?!”

Nick tugged her back by the shoulder, barely sparing their parents a glance. “Come on, Manders, our little scene here looks pretty good, and the video’ll help. But we need to call the cops soon or it’ll look suspicious.”

The girl wound herself up to spit on their parents before Nick covered her mouth. “It’d look pretty weird to find your saliva on their bodies. Just saying.”

The two turned away from their parents, walking past their dead uncle without a glance or care before stopping in front of the masked man, who had stood there watching the whole time. 

“Good job,” Nick congratulated, “you sounded perfect.”

Reaching up, the man pulled off his mask, revealing a fairly normal looking pale man with red hair. “Shucks, all I did was follow your script. That was pretty fucked up, man, I ain’t gonna lie.”

Nick shrugged. “It’ll convince the investigators that our parents’ deaths were absolutely not our fault. So the inheritance and life insurance should pay right out. Hell, we’ll probably get donations from concerned citizens who just want to help us get past the grief.” He chuckled then, before reaching into his pocket to pull out a bundle of wrapped hundred dollar bills, which he handed over to the man. “Five thousand, just as promised. The remaining forty-five will be after we get paid. You know how it is.”

Amanda was already standing over next to a nearby door. She’d opened it to reveal stairs leading down. “Come on, you’ve got to go out through the cellar so the neighbors don’t tell the cops which way you went. There’s a trap door near the bushes at the edge of the fence.”

Nick nodded, heading that way first. “Yeah, I’ll show you how to get past the junk.” He patted his sister on the head before clomping down the stairs, with the other man descending after him. 

Reaching the bottom, the man paused at the crinkling sound as he stepped off the last stair and looked down. “Hey, why is there plastic on the—”

That was as far as the man got before Amanda, using the greater heights of standing on the stair above him, suddenly leapt on the man with a banshee shriek and drove a knife into the side of his throat. He screamed, the sound turning into a gurgling mess as he collapsed to the floor with Amanda on his back, cackling madly. The man choked and died there on the plastic wrap as the girl whispered sweet nothings in his ear. 

Finally, he was dead, and Amanda rose to reveal the plastic apron she had put on to protect her own clothes from his blood. “See?” she directed toward her brother, “Told you I could do it.”

Nick gave his sister a high-five before they rolled the body up in the plastic. He took the time to pick up the wig-covered mask that the man had dropped, looking at it for a moment before tucking the thing away. Together, they dragged the body in the plastic across the entire basement, past mounds of boxes and random junk until they reached the far corner, where a dresser stood. Brother and sister moved the dresser, revealing a hole that had already been prepared. In that hole was an old freezer. The two of them dumped the body into the freezer, added the mask and Amanda’s apron and knife before closing the lid, then dragged the dresser back over to cover the hole. Working quickly, they took a minute to stack random junk all around the dresser, making it look like no one had gone over there in quite some time. Once a bike with one wheel was shifted in front of the pile, the two of them ran back up the basement stairs to re-join their murdered family members. 

“Ready?” Nick asked his sister. Getting a quick nod from her, he reached out to pick up the phone, dialing 911. It rang twice before being answered, and he immediately began to sob about how they needed help, while Amanda provided a chorus of tears and pleading in the background. 

Soon, the sound of sirens filled the air, while brother and sister looked to one another. “Nick,” Amanda murmured with delight, “that was so amazing! We have to do that again.”

The boy chuckled. “Well, it’d be pretty hard to do that again. That was kind of a one-time thing. But don’t worry. We will definitely find ways to entertain ourselves.”

With a grin, Amanda started to respond. Then she paused, head tilting as she stared past him. “Hey, Nick…

“What’re those glowing orb things?”

********

Present Day

“So that’s how my sister and I got our powers and got rid of our parents at the same time.”

Nick, or Pencil as he was now known by the world at large, stood in the middle of the convenience store, surrounded by kneeling, sobbing figures. The now twenty-year-old wore the same sackcloth mask with blonde wig that he’d had their parents’ killer wear four years earlier, having retrieved it from the freezer before he and Amanda disposed of the body. 

Smiling under the mask, Nick gestured to the kneeling people. “Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest. I don’t know why, but I really felt the need to talk about it with somebody lately. And it’s not really the kind of story you tell the therapist. I mean yeah, sis and I are super-motivational speakers. You should see the way we get worked up in all the schools about overcoming adversity and shit. It’s just… I don’t think they’d accept this particular nugget. But let’s be honest, you guys aren’t gonna tell anybody. You’ll be dead.”

His words brought a renewed round of sobbing from the group of employees and customers, before one tried to lunge to his feet in a desperate bid to either escape or attack. 

Unfortunately, the man barely stood before Nick casually buried a knife in his stomach. The man choked, looking down at all the blood with a whimper. 

“There there,” Nick murmured. He withdrew the knife from the man’s stomach, turned it around, and placed it in his hand. The man was slumping against him, whining as he closed his fingers around the knife.

“You wanna try it?” Nick offered. “I know, I know. You’ve heard all about how nothing can kill me. But go ahead, give it a try. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

There was a brief pause, before the man rammed the knife into Nick’s stomach. Nothing happened. The knife passed in and out of his body with no apparent effect. No blood was drawn, and no wound was left behind. 

“Well, that’s unlucky,” Nick murmured. “Why don’t we try again?” With that, he waved his hand, and the wound in the stomach of the man he had stabbed was abruptly healed. There was no damage whatsoever, as the guy gasped in surprise while straightening up. 

Covering his mouth in mock surprise, Nick then explained, “Yeah, see, I’m not actually completely invulnerable. The truth is, everything I do to someone else, I become completely immune to. But it only works three times for every time I do it to someone else. And it’s super specific. Like, a stab in the arm won’t protect me from a stab in the head. Or if I set someone on fire, the only parts of me that are protected from burning are the parts of them that burned. So I tend to be pretty thorough.”

With a sudden curse, the other man tried to cut Nick’s throat. Again, nothing happened. 

Nick, with a roll of his eyes, drove a knee into the man’s groin, dropping him to the ground. “Dude, do you have any idea how often I’ve stabbed people in the throat? Yeah, I’m only protected three times per. But I’ve stacked like… pffft, hundreds by this point. It’s pretty ridiculous.”

Stepping over the man, he continued, addressing both him and the rest of the kneeling, crying people. “You’re wondering how I healed you, right? That’s the kicker. See, every time I do something to someone else, I get three slots of immunity from that thing. But I can spend one of those slots to heal anybody else from that specific thing. Yeah,” he laughed, “Probably one of the best healers in the country is a goddamn Abyssal-worshiping serial killer. Isn’t that just profoundly fucked up?”

Getting no real response from the terrified group, he sighed. “You people are no fun. Oh well, let’s—”

He was interrupted by the chime of the front door of the shop, as a uniformed police officer burst in with his gun raised. “Get your hands up! Get them up!”

Rather than comply, Nick simply turned to watch. Just as the police officer started to shout again, Amanda casually stepped out from behind a nearby shelf. Cup, as she was now known by their naming rules of using completely mundane objects for their ‘supervillain’ titles, wore a white bodysuit with a matching white cloak and hood. Her white mask was cloth, covering the lower half of her face. Pure white, the color of innocence. She thought it was funny. 

Stepping by the startled cop, she spoke up casually. “If a balloon floats up in the air, will it float down under water?”

The cop turned his pistol to her with a gasp. Then he stopped, his mouth moving as he repeated the question under his breath. A frown furrowed his brow and he repeated it again louder. His shoulders slumped, as the gun lowered. 

This was Amanda/Cup’s power. She could ask any nonsensical question, and a person’s entire focus and attention would be completely taken up with trying to answer it. They would become obsessed with the question for a short time, depending on just how absurd it was. The more ridiculous, the longer they would be distracted.

Cup plucked the gun from the cop’s hand, checked it, then shot the man in the face. He collapsed while everyone in the store screamed. 

With a sigh, Pencil regarded his sister. “Really? Now we have to hurry, and I can’t enjoy myself.”

Shrugging, Cup replied, “The rest of the Scions are waiting for us anyway, dude. It’s time to pray to Typhon.” It was a thing neither of them actually believed in, actually ‘praying’ to some poor fucked up loser who ended up turning into a monster. But it freaked people out, and they thought that was hilarious. Plus, most of the other Scions actually went for that stuff, so the siblings played it up. 

Checking his watch, Nick blinked. “Huh. Guess you’re right. Time really flies, huh? Oh well.” He turned back to the gathered group with a bright smile. “So…” he started while reaching out to pick up a jar with warning labels plastered all over it out of a nearby bag. 

“Which one of you wants to add to my acid immunity?”

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